Monthly Archives: June 2016

Parshat Shelakh-Lekha

Parshat Shelakh-Lekha is the 4th in the Book of Numbers covering Chapters 13-15. It begins with the appointment of 12 spies, missioned to tour the promised land of Canaan. Forty days later they returned with samples of its produce and a 10-2 decision to the negative – the land couldn’t be conquered. Shocked, the people cried in despair and complained to Moshe and to G-d. Only Joshua and Caleb defended the campaign.

Their cries triggered a punishment from G-d that all men 20-years and older would die off in the Wilderness during the ensuing 40 years, and only their wives and children would merit entering Canaan. Deeply remorseful the following day, a band from Bnei Yisrael attempted to ascend without G-d’s help and were struck-down by the Amalekites and Canaanites.

The parasha continues with Laws of Sacrifices brought once the people enter Canaan, and the meal offerings & wine libations that accompanied each animal. This was followed by the laws of Taking Hallah from dough before bread was baked and giving it as Terumah to G-d; and by Laws of the Inadvertent Sin offering brought by the community or by an individual.

Shelakh-Lekha ends with the story of the man who gathered wood on Shabbat and was put to death by stoning, and with the command to put wool- and blue-dyed threads on the fringes of your four-cornered garments.

Comment: The enormous remorse which sometimes follows a sin can be as bad if not worse than the original transgression. An example can be found in Parashat Shelakh-Lekha where Bnei Yisrael slander the Land of Canaan and are punished to die in the desert.

The first reaction of Bnei Yisrael the morning after hearing G-d’s decree, was despair. The remorseful among them decided immediately to attempt ascent into Canaan, even though it was against G-d’s wishes. Ignoring Moshe’s warnings, and taking matters into their own hands, they died by their own initiative in a violent battle with Amalek and Canaan.

Some may argue that it’s better to challenge the odds than to wait for the inevitable. Perhaps they intended their remorse as a form of repentance before G-d and expected to be forgiven. For what would be the sense of living in the desert, if there was no chance to inherit the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?

Indeed, seen through this lens, the incident of Korah’s rebellion in next week’s parasha also makes sense. Relying on Moshe was no longer viable if all they could expect was to wander aimlessly in the desert ‘killing time’ until ‘their time’ would come. Choosing new leadership would seem a way to resolve their troubles.

Perhaps this is a subtle viewpoint, but there are two powerful messages that resonate with truth. First, up until now Bnei Yisrael committed a number of transgressions, including the sin of the Golden Calf, but it was only slander that undid them. How immense is the power of words to cause pain and suffering to others!

Second, Bnei Yisrael’s sin in slandering the Land of Canaan was compounded by their expressed-wish to return to Egypt, showing an all-too-familiar pattern that when a situation gets difficult, we react by looking backwards and laying blame on our leaders.

In a week when we’ve seen this country mired in regret, with a return to terrible incidents of racial hatred and verbal assault, perhaps we can remind ourselves, that our only choice is to move forward in Hope, rather than to look back, lament the past and try to scapegoat those weaker than ourselves.

A More Detailed Look at the Parasha

G-d told Moshe to send men to tour the land of Cana’an, one representing each tribe. Moshe dispatched them from the Paran Wilderness. They were:

Reuven – Sha’mu’ah ben Zakur                                             Shimon – Shafat ben Hori

Yehudah – Kaleb ben Yefuneh                                               Yisakhar – Yigal ben Yosef

Ephraim – Hoshea ben Nun (Yehoshua)                               Binyamin – Palti ben Rafu

Zevulun – Gadiel ben Sodi                                                     Menashe – Gadi ben Susi

Dan – Amiel ben Gemali                                                        Asher – Setur ben Mikhael

Naftali – Nakhbi ben Vofsi                                                      Gad – Ge’u’el ben Makhi

Moshe told them to enter from the Negev and ascend to the mountains; to spy out the land, to see whether the people were strong or weak, few or many; whether the land was good or bad, whether the cities were fortified or open; was the land fertile or not; were there trees and that they should bring back of their fruits. They went during the grape harvest season.

They ascended and toured the land from Desert Sin to Rehav and Hamat. From the Negev they reached Hebron where the giants Akhiman, Sheishai & Talmai lived. At Eshkol Valley they cut a cluster of grapes plus pomegranates and figs; returning finally after 40 days to meet Moshe, Aharon and the congregation of Bnei Yisrael who were at Kedaisha.

Showing their fruits, they reported it was a land flowing with milk and honey and these were samples of its fecundity. However, the land’s inhabitants was strong and its cities fortified. The Amalekites were in the south, the Hittites, Jabusites and Amorites dwelt in mountains and the Canaanites occupied the coast and riverbanks.

Kaleb tried to rally the people by charging them to ‘ascend and inherit the land; it was possible’. But the other spies, denied it possible to defeat the current occupants. Instead, they slandered the land saying it ‘consumed its inhabitants’; the people were strong-natured and ‘descendants of giants’ lived there.

That night, the nation lifted its voice in wailing, complaining to Moshe and Aharon, ‘it would have been better for us to die in Egypt or in the Wilderness, why did G-d bring us here so that our wives and children would waste away? It would be better to return to Egypt.’ Some decided to appoint a new head and head back to Egypt.

Moshe and Aharon fell on their faces; Joshua and Kaleb tore their clothing and rebuked the people claiming it was a good land. ‘Should G-d wish, we would take it! Rather, beware not to rebel against G-d, the inhabitants will be our bread, their shield has been removed and G-d is with us – do not despair.’ But, the nation wanted to stone them, until suddenly G-d’s presence appeared.

G-d spoke to Moshe asking ‘how long will this people vex Me; will they refuse to believe in Me after all the miracles they’ve seen? Let me destroy them with pestilence and make of you a great nation!’ Moshe replied if the Egyptians heard G-d took this people from their midst – who beheld G-d eye-to-eye, and were escorted constantly by pillars of cloud and of fire – smiting them as one, they would conclude it was G-d’s inability to bring have them inherit the land that caused them to be slaughtered in the desert.

Moshe evoked the formula for repentance (taught to him by G-d) seeking forgiveness for Bnei Yisrael. And G-d forgave them. But ‘those who witnessed the miracles of Egypt and tested Me 10-times in the wilderness’, they wouldn’t see the Promised Land. Only Kaleb would be worthy. Because the Amalekites and Canaanites were in the valley, the following day Bnei Yisrael would turn back to the wilderness and travel by way of the Reed Sea.

G-d told Moshe and Aharon that Bnei Yisrael would be punished measure-for-measure for their complaints. Other than Kaleb ben Yefuneh and Yehoshua bin Nun, all men 20-years and older would die in the Wilderness, not meriting to enter the Land of Canaan. Only their wives and children, would know the land their father’s despised. One year for each day of touring, they would wander 40-years in the desert until the last had died-off. As for the spies that brought the bad report, they would die by plague immediately.

Regretting their fate, some rose early the next morning to attempt entering the land. Moshe warned them not to transgress G-d’s decision and risk falling into the hands of their enemies since G-d would not be with them. But they persisted and were struck down by the mountain-dwelling Amalekites and Canaanites.

[Abruptly the Torah changes topics]

G-d tells Moshe that when the people eventually enter the land and offer sacrifices; a lamb should be accompanied by a meal offering of 1/10th eipha fine flour mixed with a quarter hin of oil, along with a quarter hin of wine as a libation for their Olah or Zevakh offerings. Each ram should be accompanied by 2/10th eipha fine flour mixed with a third hin of oil, along with a third hin of wine as a libation. If the offering was a bull, the meal offering would be 3/10th eipha fine flour mixed with a half hin of oil, along with a half hin of wine as a libation

These quantities were to be brought for each offering. Both the permanent resident and the long-term stranger were obliged by the same laws; for citizen and non-citizen alike.

When entering the land and baking your bread, just as you separate a portion while the grain is on the threshing floor, so too must you take from the dough and give it to the Almighty.

Should you collectively err and not perform all the mitsvot Moshe taught you, if the congregation faltered, they would bring a bull as a burnt offering and a goat for a sin offering along with their meal offerings and libations. The Kohen would affect atonement for the people and for the strangers in their midst.

If an individual were to sin, they’d bring a one-year-old goat as a sin offering. Here too, the law was the same for the resident as well as the stranger. But, if one deliberately sinned against G-d, they’d be cut off from the nation. For they despise the word of G-d, flaunting the mitsvot.

A man gathered wood on Shabbat and was brought before Moshe and Aharon by those who saw him. He was placed in prison until judgment was passed. G-d told Moshe the man should be stoned to death outside the encampment. The congregation did to him as G-d had commanded.

G-d spoke with Moshe to tell Bnei Yisrael to place fringes on the four corners of their garments in perpetuity. And, among the strings should be a blue thread. When you see them it will remind you of all G-d’s commandments, preventing you from following the passions of your heart and perversions of your eyes. In order that you remember G-d’s commands and remain holy to G-d. ‘For I am the Lord your G-d who took you from Egypt to become your G-d.

Thoughts on the Week 30 June 2016

PREJUDICE – WHERE DOES IT COME FROM? Religious prejudice and racial hatred must be learned emotions. They would have to be acquired at stages in a person’s emotional development because it just seems anathema to human nature to house such baseless, vile behaviour.

This thought was brought home during an Armed Forces Iftar Reception at the Ministry of Defense on Wednesday evening. Commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the WWI Battle of the Somme, the evening attended by the Rt. Hon Earl Howe, Minister of State for Defence, also paid tribute to the overlooked contribution of 400,000 Muslim soldiers during WWI.

After the speeches and presentations, a small group of soldiers and guests from the mixed audience attended to their evening prayers, and then we all joined as they broke their fast for the day. Among them were Muslim soldiers who had already served in Afghanistan.

From where do we get our views of the ‘other/ the outsider’, especially when they’re negative? The Torah often informs that the law for the resident is the same as the law for the stranger.

In many cases our values are acquired first from our homes, from friends and during our education.

Not to draw any parallels but growing up in a Jewish area and attending Jewish schools until finishing secondary education can leave our children with a set of values that may go against the pluralist norm. To what extent such schools succeed in teaching respect, tolerance and acceptance is a topic being debated in the USA of recent. (See this Times of Israel article by Yigal M Gross on the problems of Yeshiva Day Schools).

Here in the UK in the week since Brexit, racial violence and hate crimes have spiked considerably. It might just be useful to remind ourselves that people of ‘good will’ must do more to make our voices heard over and above the voices of hate. For those who haven’t seen the Guardian article on Faith Leaders speaking out against prejudice, here are some quotes.

Justin Welby, the leader of the Church of England, said people of “evil will” were using the referendum result as an excuse to vent their hatred.

“The privilege of democracy is to vote, to campaign vigorously, to have robust and firm discussion. It is not a privilege of democracy to express hatred, to use division as an excuse for prejudice and for hate-filled attacks,” the archbishop of Canterbury said at an iftar meal to break the Ramadan fast with the chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, and the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, on Monday.

A common stand against intolerance, discrimination and hatred was “absolutely crucial for the future of this country, and for rebuilding this country with a new vision of what it means to be outward-looking, generous, hospitable, powerful in doing good, strong in resisting evil”.

Ephraim Mirvis, the chief rabbi, said: “Sadly, we know only too well that when political and economic uncertainty strike, discord and hatred are often not far behind. We must heed this warning that even here in the UK, where we treasure diversity, we are not immune to the scourge of prejudice.”

It is our duty to convey these messages loud and clear within our own communities and to those who may be targets of such discrimination. It’s no longer enough to wait for others to act on our behalf.

Thoughts on the Week 23 June 2016

Friday morning, the British electorate is going to wake with a terrible hangover.

Months ago when it was first announced, there seemed to be a healthy excitement over the European Union In/Out Referendum. And, while undoubtedly it’s good the country has gone through the exercise of defining and examining its priorities, we were naïve not to anticipate how fractiously intolerable the discussions would become.

For the past weeks, other than the 2016 European Champions Cup, the main subject of media focus, in the UK (and briefly around the globe), seemed to be which side was Right. Swings in financial markets were attributed to the uncertain result, and even the Queen was alleged to have shown a subtle interest. It’s almost to the point that one can’t be sure if any other work in this country was being done. Finally, today historically, all that effort will come to a head.

But putting aside what the successful outcome of today’s vote will be, tomorrow and going forward, some will look back in disgust at what we’ve become – a country polarised nearly to the breaking point. Tragically, at the extremes, Member of Parliament Jo Cox, was murdered by a white, middle-aged, mentally-deranged, killer shouting nationalistic slogans. So, the bigger question should be, not ‘who won?’, but ‘what comes next?’!

And, to be fair, this polarising politic is not limited to the UK. In the USA there’s an equally growing division unfolding. Regardless of how one defines the policies & personalities of the designated US presidential candidates, a troubling trend among leading democratic nations is an unbending, inflexible struggle for power, combined with an unwillingness to engage the disenfranchised opposition. This may eventually be linked to an increased class divide in the West.

‘Winner takes all and let the rest be damned’ was never Democracy’s intention. Giving a voice to and representing the needs of the widest public was as much the basis of those cherished late-18th century revolutions as was the desire to escape the tyranny of kings.

Sadly, we may be witnessing in our generation a teetering on-the-verge-of-collapse of a system that’s lasted several hundred years but has now become so fractious that it can’t correct its own faults. Efforts to look more at what we have in common than what separates us are being made at the grassroots level. And the public is in wide support. Proof is in how quickly the charities connected with Jo Cox’s death have drawn in over £1 million – in contribution amounts of £5 each.

The British electorate on Friday morning will wake to hear the results of their historic vote, but to face ourselves in the mirror after the past months of political infighting, name calling, misinformation, abusive behaviour and immigrant intolerance will require a much greater concentration on our shared humanity – the values-in-common we must protect and celebrate rather than those which divide us.

It is hoped we’ll recognise in revulsion that it wasn’t worth the tragic loss of a young woman who dedicated herself to making life better for people in this country and beyond. There’s no turning back time to return an energetic wife and mother to her family nor words that can lift the grievous feelings of bereavement many of us felt.

We learned last week that Kedusha (sanctity) can only exist where there’s an absence of Tumah (ritual impurity). Perhaps this idea can also be extended to mean that Love and Tolerance can only exist where there’s an absence of Hatred and Resentment.

The clever politicians who survive the fallout of an agitated populace (nearly 50% of whom will be disappointed) will need to begin focusing on healing-the-hurt rather than gloating over their victory.

Referendums – really not my cup of tea.

Parshat BeHa’alotekha

Parshat BeHa’alotekha is the 3rd in the Book of Numbers (Chapters 8-12). It begins with the command for Aharon to light the menorah, adding the induction of the Levites into Mishkan service, the celebration of Pesah in the Wilderness and the laws of Pesah Sheni.

Next is the directive role of the Cloud of Glory which appeared above the Mishkan; when it lifted they were to travel and where it set, they would again encamp. A pair of silver trumpets were made and given to the Kohanim to use for signalling when to gather, break camp, get ready for war or celebrate the festivals.

Bnei Yisrael’s first attempt to travel as a nation soon led to complaints for food. Moshe complained of being overwhelmed by the burden of leadership and G-d instructed deputising 70 Elders to share the task. A Divine wind then miraculously blew-in enough quail to feed the entire nation for a month.

BeHa’alotekha ends with Miriam and Aharon slandering their brother Moshe, and Miriam’s punishment of spiritual leprosy and 7-days quarantine outside the camp.


Comment: It’s hard for humans to fully entrust G-d to provide us with our daily needs.

Some would argue we shouldn’t trouble G-d with such relatively inconsequential, selfish requests but that instead it’s our duty to go out and make our way in the world through initiative and talent. For that reason we train our children ethically, send them to school to be educated, cheer their successes and offer encouragement at their set-backs.

From the beginning of time when the first man and woman were created, they were placed in an idyllic environment called the Garden of Eden. Given everything they might possibly want and restricted only to not eating the fruit of a single tree; that restriction was too much to withstand. And so, they were cast out into a world where they had to eat by the sweat of their brow and give birth in pain.

The story of the second half of Bamidbar from Chapter 11 onwards, recalls that first unsuccessful struggle. Given every positive opportunity, Bnei Yisrael simply had to remain calm and show their gratitude to G-d. Sadly, BeHa’alotekha is the turning point for the host of troubles Bnei Yisrael would experience before reaching the Land of Cana’an.

What should have been an 11-day journey, according to Ramban, instead would take 40-years and encompass the death of the entire adult generation of those freed from Egyptian slavery. It’s a tragic story of self-inflicted failure that, up until this week’s Parasha, seemed entirely avoidable.

There was manna, there was hierarchical order, families were together and G-d’s presence was resident in the respective camps. Would that Bnei Yisrael have realised their immense blessings and refrained from complaining in disgust and through distrust! They’d been at the base of Sinai for a year, why only now after they began marching did they complain for meat?

Looking at the use of the Hebrew wording, the opening verses of the Parasha refer to Aharon ‘ascending’ to light the Menorah. Equally, the lengthy section explaining their travel instructions uses the same verb form (la’alot) to ascend. Achieving trust in the Almighty can only occur when we look upward in the ascent, not when mired in a descending mind-set.

It’s hard for humans to fully entrust G-d to provide us with our daily needs. Nor are we advocating total dependence to an irrational degree, but each of us can certainly reflect on how we relate to and allocate time to meeting our physical and spiritual needs and ask ourselves the question, have we struck the correct balance? Is our vision set in an upward ascent? If not, how should we go about making a change?

A More Detailed Look at the Parasha

Aharon was commanded to light the 7 candles in the golden Menorah; an image of its base and branches was shown to Moshe at Sinai.

Moshe was commanded by G-d to purify the Leviim initiating them in place of the first-born into the service of the Mishkan. They were sprinkled with Hatat (purification) waters, their bodies fully shaven and their clothing washed. Two bullocks as sacrifices – one a burnt-offering and one a sin-offering – were prepared with a meal-offering of fine flour.

Brought to the Tent of Meeting, Bnei Yisrael pressed their hands on the Leviim. Aharon made them a wave-offering, inducting them to perform the service of G-d. The Leviim then placed their hands on the two animals designated for sacrifice. Standing before the Kohanim the Leviiim thus became segregated from among Bnei Yisrael.

‘For on the day G-d struck the Egyptian first born, the Israelite first-born belonged to the Me’. The Leviim were given to the Kohanim to serve in the Mishkan, representing Bnei Yisrael, effecting atonement for their sins. Aharon carried out this duty for them; the Leviim were charged to serve in the Mishkan from age 25-50.

G-d told Moshe to instruct the people on the 14th day of the 1st month to bring a Pesah offering. There were some who were ritually impure on that day who protested being left out. Moshe entreated their patience while consulting with G-d what should be done.

They, and anyone in future generations who was Tameh or traveling and unable to bring their sacrifice, were instructed to observe the festive requirements of bringing their Pesah offering and eating it with matsah and marror on the 14th day of the 2nd month instead; those able to participate on the original date of Pesah in Nisan who deliberately opted out would be culpable for punishment.

On the day the Mishkan was erected it was covered by a cloud during the day and at night by a fire. This became perennial. When the cloud lifted from the Mishkan it was a sign to travel and where it settled was a sign to again encamp.

There were times when the cloud remained for a longer period and there were times when it alighted after only a few days; or for only one evening to the next day or for a few days or a month. When the Cloud lifted the people travelled and when it settled they stopped.

G-d told Moshe to make two silver trumpets for signalling the congregation. They would be used for breaking camp; when blown they would call the people to the Tent of Meeting. If blown once, they would summon the Princes; if blown as an alarm, they would signal the beginning of movement from the East, a second alarm would signal movement in the South. The Kohanim were responsible for blowing them; they were used to signal war evoking G-d’s mercy and protection and, during the special sacrifices they were blown to announce festivals and new moons – causing Bnei Yisrael to be remembered before G-d.

On the 20th day of the 2nd month of the 2nd year, the first national embarkation from Sinai toward the Pa’aran wilderness began. The 3 tribes under the Flag of Judah stirred first, the Mishkan was taken down and the frame was carried by the Levite sons Gershon & Merrari. They were followed by Flag Reuben, then the sons of Kehat carrying the Mishkan vessels (leaving Gershon & Merrari enough time to reconstruct the Mishkan before they encamped again); the last two Flags of Ephraim and Dan followed.

Reu’el the Midianite, Moshe’s father-in-law, was invited to accompany them on their first journey but declined, preferring to return to his homeland. Moshe asked him to reconsider, not to abandon them but to be the eyes of the nation, promising him benefit in the new land. They travelled 3 days and the Ark travelled 3 days in front of them seeking where they would next rest.

When they carried the Ark, Moshe called G-d to scatter their enemies, and when they rested, he said, ‘Return Oh G-d unto Israel’s tens of thousands of families’. [These words are used in synagogues today when either opening and/or closing the Ark.]

The nation began murmuring – the first complaint led to a fire breaking out in their midst but Moshe prayed and it abated, and the place was named accordingly. The second complaint raised by a mixed multitude was a lust; nostalgically remembering the delicacies of Egypt, they complained for meat, fish, cucumbers, melon, leeks, onions and garlic; claiming their life force had become dehydrated by the manna. Though they gathered, ground, beat, cooked or tried baking it, the result was the same – the manna tasted like oil-cake.

Moshe heard the crying of families standing at the entrance to their tents and knew their ingratitude would anger G-d. Overwhelmed, he blamed G-d of mistreating him and begged to be killed rather than continue bearing the burden of this people.

G-d told Moshe to gather 70 elders in front of the Tent of Meeting to be empowered from the spirit that Moshe bore; to no longer be alone. Moshe told the nation to sanctify themselves for the following day G-d would provide them enough meat to last a month – until they were sick of it. In disbelief, Moshe asked G-d where so much meat could come from, and G-d replied ‘is the hand of the Lord limited?’

Moshe went out to inform the people what G-d said about the meat and to gather 70 elders. G-d descended in a Cloud and caused the spirit of prophecy to rest on the 70 briefly. There were two who didn’t go to the Tent, Eldad & Meidad, who also prophesised within the camp. Joshua reported them to Moshe asking that they be stopped. Moshe appreciated Joshua’s jealousy but replied he wouldn’t mind if the entire people became prophets.

A wind blew and quail arrived in such abundance to cover the ground for a day’s distance in either direction. The people gathered for 2 days amassing vast quantities around the camp. But those who ate the quail were struck by a plague while the meat was still between their teeth. The place was named Kivrot-HaTeavah (Grave of Lust). The nation travelled on to Hatserot.

The Parasha ends with Miriam and Aharon slandering their brother over a Kushite woman. They asked each other, ‘does G-d only speak with Moshe?’ And G-d heard, saying Moshe was the humblest of all men on the earth.

Suddenly all three were called into the Cloud in front of the Tent of Meeting, where G-d chastised Miriam and Aharon; spelling out the favoured Divine relationship with Moshe. When the Cloud left, Miriam was found stricken with Spiritual Leprosy. Aharon begged Moshe to save her; Moshe prayed for her to be healed; then she was sent out of the camp for 7 days. The nation waited for her to return, afterwards they travelled from Hatseirot to Pa’aran.

Thoughts on the Week 16 June 2016

Sadly, again this week we begin with condolences to those innocently murdered recently in Orlando and in France, by lone wolves who inflict pain and give birth to further hatred – in a seemingly never-ending cycle. Would gun control be a sufficient deterrent, most likely not! Is crying out for the ban of Muslim immigrants into the USA a solution – definitely not. But both play well as media sound bites to ‘control’ the news flow and create the illusion that the news readers have any more wisdom than we do.

Earlier this week, there was a concert at Central Hall Westminster in support of refugee children living alone in Europe. Performed by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, now Dr Yusuf Islam, the charity event attracted nearly 1,600 fans – younger and older alike – to listen to familiar tunes from a by-gone period.

The concert was in aid of 3 charities –Small Kindness, Penny Appeal & Save the Children. They operate under the tag line #You Are Not Alone. On Tuesday, the Evening Standard interviewed Yusuf to ask about his work.

Perhaps the first high-profile musician to convert to Islam, at the height of his career his religious convictions took Cat Stevens out of the 1970s music world for over 2 decades. And, though he’s returned to produce 3 records with a 4th due out by the end of this year, the concert focused on his earlier hits; Wild World, Morning has Broken, Moon Shadow, Father & Son and Peace Train.

Members of his charitable foundation attest to the sincerity of a man who hasn’t lost focus of the personal. His philanthropic educational work in the British Muslim community and beyond is well-known. For a period in the late 1980s, he was drawn into controversy (responding with libel suits) relating to accusations about religious statements and beneficiaries of his charity. He’s since been granted 2 honorary doctorates and is largely recognised today as a visionary who supports countless worthy causes.

Those interested in assisting the nearly 95,000 children displaced by Syria’s civil war, can click here for more information (

Parshat Naso

Parshat Naso is the 2nd in the Book of Numbers (Chapters 4-7). It continues with the census of male Levites (8,580) serving the Mishkan and an allocation of their duties by household.

Next follows a series of laws including; not allowing the ritually impure to dwell in the encampment, restitution for theft of another’s property, Sotah (a woman suspected of marital infidelity) and Nazir (one who vows temporary asceticism). The section ends with the famous 3 verses comprising the Priestly Blessing.

The later portion of Naso lists the Mishkan consecration ceremony, the 6 wagons and 12 bullocks for transport given by the tribes, and the 12 identical lavish gifts brought one-per-day, by each of the tribal princes – in order of their encampment rank.

Comment: One thing strikingly out of place in Parshat Naso is the imposition of laws of Sotah and Nazir in between the narrative-flow of taking a National Census and Tibal Princes bringing gifts during the dedication of the Mishkan.

Bamidbar is supposed to be a book about the nation, its encampment, travels and even its political movements. Sotah and Nazir, issues of personal sanctity, seem to belong back in the Book of VaYikra.

Perhaps one way to address this is by reframing our thinking about the difference between VaYikra and Bamidbar. The former aimed at the Kohanim and their role promoting and protecting the sanctity of the Mishkan, while the latter focused on the national interest and the need for keeping sanctity in the wider encampment.

Marital harmony is the cornerstone of any healthy society. Without it our families would wither, our social groups suffer and our children grow un-cultured and untamed.

Where Bamidbar focuses on the impact of each individual (counting head-by-head) who can be a contributing element in the national fabric, it also sets an example of how each person must take responsibility for the most sacred aspects of their behaviour – be it to one extreme or another.

Sotah addresses how we control our sexuality, even under difficult or vexing circumstances. [There is a bigger issue here in the seeming gender-discrimination of the Sotah. Specifically, there’s no equivalent ritual should a woman become jealous and wish to prove her husband’s chastity; it’s only the wife’s infidelity that is under question.

In part based on the view that men were permitted to have more than one wife but women could only have one husband, the Torah seems to judge women by a higher standard. Any attempt to address this other than apologetically might be misconstrued, though some argue biologically it’s easier to know the mother of a child; thus putting more onus on the woman.]

Nazir on the other hand looks at our higher-level instincts. Derived from the parallel prohibitions not to drink wine nor to mourn immediate relatives – both restrictions only applying to the High Priest – Nazir informs us that even ordinary people can temporarily strive for and reach the level of Kedusha experienced by the Kohen Gadol.

Which of these impulses we choose to follow – lower or higher level – during this problem-filled journey we call Life, is up to each of us. May we be those who promote sanctity and spread peace at a time when the world desperately needs an abundance of both!

Closer look at the Parasha:

A census was taken of the 30-50 year old males from the House of Gershon. Their role was to transport the curtains and roof-coverings, screens and courtyard curtains and their cords. They were under the charge of Aharon’s son Itamar.

A census was taken of the 30-50 year old males from the House of Merari. Their role was to transport the boards, bars, pillars and sockets. They too were under the charge of Aharon’s son Itamar.

A census was taken of the 30-50 year old males from the House of Kehat. [Their service – to carry the sacred vessels – was listed last week.] They were appointed by Moshe, Aharon and the Tribal Princes. Their number comprised 2,750 men.

The number from Gershon was 2,630. And, the number from Merari was 3,200. The total of those counted was 8,580.

Working-age Levites :

Gershon          = 2,630,           Kehat               = 2,750,           Merari              = 3,200
= 8,580

Moshe is told to command Bnei Yisrael those who are ritually impure from bodily discharges or from spiritual leprosy had to be sent out of the encampment – to avoid making ritually impure the place where G-d dwelt among them.

Next, Moshe explained laws concerning theft of another’s property and the one-fifth penalty added in restitution. When it wasn’t known whom to repay, compensation was given to G-d via the agency of the Kohen; who was also entitled to receive Terumah from Bnei Yisrael.

Moshe shared the laws of Sotah; if a man suspected his wife of an adulterous liaison and was overcome by jealousy. The husband brought his wife before the Kohen along with a meal offering of one-tenth an Eipha of barley flour unaccompanied by oil or incense. This Minha was offered before G-d.

In an earthenware bowl the Kohen took holy water and mixed in earth from the Mishkan’s floor, he uncovered the head of the woman – who held her meal offering while the Kohen held the water mixture. The Kohen made her swear an oath and a curse if she had sinned with another man, warning her of the consequences. Were she to be lying, the bitter waters she would have to drink, would cause her stomach to bloat and her thighs to collapse. She was asked to say Amen, Amen.

The oath was written in G-d’s name in a scroll and then its erasure was added into the waters. While the woman was given this liquid to drink, the Kohen brought her close to the Altar, removed the Azkarata (symbolic handful) and offered her Minha. Had she sinned, the punishment would evidence her wrong-doing. If she was innocent, she would be blessed to have a child. This was the ritual procedure in cases of marital jealousy.

Bnei Yisrael were instructed in the laws concerning a Nazerite (one who vows to temporarily abstain from pleasures). Both a man and a woman could vow to refrain from wine and its derivative products – including grapes fresh or dried. During the days of abstinence, one let their hair grow and refrained from contact with death – even were it to occur among one’s most immediate relatives. For this was a time of great sanctity.

If inadvertently the Nazir came in contact with a corpse, her/his vow would be interrupted, and they would have to bring atonement. On the seventh day from contamination s/he would shave their head and on the 8th day bring 2 pigeons or turtle doves as an offering; one as burnt- and the other as sin-offering. The Kohen slaughtered these along with a one-year-old sheep, restoring the Nazir’s sanctified status. The previous days would not be counted in the total, and the acolyte Nazir had to begin again from the start.

Upon completing their period of abstinence, a Nazir brought the following sacrifices: a lamb an ewe and a ram; a basket of matsot, matsa cakes covered in oil, their minha offerings and libations. The lamb and ewe were sin offerings and the ram a peace offering. The Nazir shaved-off their hair in front of the Tent of Meeting; it was put on the altar fire before the peace offering. The Kohen placed the ram’s thigh along with matsot in the Nazir’s hands, waving them before the Altar. Afterwards, the Nazir drank wine. This was the Nazir ritual.

Aharon was commanded in the proper way to bless Bnei Yisrael:

May G-d bless and protect you.
May G-d shine a face upon you and give you Grace.
May G-d lift a face upon you and grant you peace.
[G-d said] When you place my name on Bnei Yisrael, I will bless them.

On the day Moshe finished erecting the Mishkan, anointing it, sanctifying it and its vessels, the heads of tribes donated 6 wagons and 12 bullocks for transporting the Mishkan. G-d told Moshe to distribute the wagons – 2 wagons and 4 bullocks went to Gershon and 4 wagons and 8 bullocks to Merari. The work of Kehat was to carry the holy vessels on their shoulders.

For the ensuing 12 days, a head of each tribe brought an identical offering at the Mishkan’s dedication. This included; a large silver platter weighing 130 shekels and a large silver basin weighing 70 shekels, each filled with fine flour mixed with oil for a minha offering. A golden spoon weighing 10 shekels filled with incense; an ox, lamb and ram for a burnt offering; a goat as a sin offering; two oxen, 5 rams, 5 goats and 5 lambs for a peace offering.

[The daily order followed the encampment pattern of the tribes. See chart below.]

Order of Gifts by Tribal Princes:

DAY 1              Yehudah –       Nakhshon ben Aminadav
DAY 2              Yissakhar –     Netanel ben Tsuar
DAY 3              Zebulun –        Eliav ben Heylon
DAY 4              Reuben –         Elitsur ben Shedayur
DAY 5              Shimon –         Shelumiel ben Tsurishadai
DAY 6              Gad –              Elyasaf ben De’uel
DAY 7              Ephrayim –      Elishama ben Amihud
DAY 8              Menashe –      Gamliel ben Pedatsur
DAY 9              Binyamin –      Avidan ben Gidoni
DAY 10            Dan –               Akhiezer ben Amishadai
DAY 11            Asher –            Pagiel ben Okhran
DAY 12            Naftali –           Akhira ben Einan

Finally, the Torah offers a tally of all the gifts.
12 silver plates x 130 shekels (1,300)
12 silver basins x 70 shekels   (+ 700)            = 2,000
12 golden spoons x 10 shekels          =    120

Burnt Offerings:                                               Peace Offerings:
12 oxen                                                           24 oxen
12 lambs                                                         60 rams
12 rams                                                           60 goats
60 lambs

Sin Offerings:
12 goats


Parshat Bamidbar

Parshat Bamidbar is the 1st in the Book of Numbers (Chapters 1-4). It is made up of an exhaustive census of Bnei Yisrael and the Tribe of Levi taken on the 1st day of the 2nd month of the 2nd year after the exodus from Egypt.

Following G-d’s command to take a census, leaders were enlisted and each tribe counted according to heads of households and their families. A second description of how the tribes encamped around and marched (with the Mishkan in the centre) followed.

G-d told Moshe to exclude the Levites from the tally, for they would have a unique role. A third census counted just the tribe of Levi and a fourth totalled the number of first-born among the other tribes – the numbers were nearly identical – the surplus of first-born being redeemed for 5 Shekels per person. In Naso, a fifth census was taken to determine the working-age Levites responsible for transporting the Mishkan.

For a detailed list of the numbers by tribe, encampment and household, click here.

Comment: Shavuoth celebrates the anniversary of G-d’s revelation at Sinai. The Torah is called the ‘5 Books of Moses’. In the way the chapters are divided into books we find many interesting patterns. Genesis & Exodus describe a quasi-chronological experience. The middle book, Leviticus, concerns the pathway to achieving a sacred life. And the final two, Numbers and Deuteronomy, return to the national narrative leading to Bnei Yisrael’s arrival at the border of Cana’an.

If, like a filled-pastry, we assume the centre holds the best part – the most emphasis and importance, than the historical sections on both sides must somehow embellish this.

Further, there’s an unusual disconnect between the English and Hebrew names of Bamidbar. In Hebrew the word means ‘in the desert,’ but in English it’s known as the Book of Numbers. Our sages from the Middle Ages enjoined us that the Torah was given in the Midbar for a reason – because unless we’re able to free our minds of worldly concerns, the Torah’s principles would be indiscernible to us. Just as a wilderness is empty of materialism, so too must we avoid bringing in our own agendas.

Put differently, unless we empty ourselves of ego-involvement, there would be no room to experience G-d-centered wisdom. And yet, the physical world beckons us to count, to number and to quantify.

So how do we reconcile these competing influences – an egoless approach in a materialistic-driven world? Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness had their issues – they were a stiff-necked people whose behaviour often disappointed or angered G-d. How are we 3,300 years later going to be better?

Judaism uses the idea of ‘Generations’ to discuss the passage of time. As we’re commanded during Pesah that each generation should see itself as having been redeemed from slavery, so too must we answer the question how each generation related to receiving the Torah.

No doubt we must have our basic physical needs met. It’s when we’re ready to put our ideas and ideals above our basic creature comforts that we begin to rise above our innate selfishness. That’s the point when the spirituality and transcendent principles of Torah are uncovered – like an oasis in the desert – and start to come into focus. Please take advantage of the opportunity Shavuoth presents!

Thoughts on the week

As we launch a new format to our weekly newsletter, our sympathies are with the families of the 4 Israelis who were innocently murdered while dining last night in Tel Aviv and with those who were injured.

We are indeed living in unique and challenging times! But who would willingly trade our lifestyle with that of even 20, 50, 70 or 100 years ago, let alone much further back in time.

Still some may say the 1970s was an exception – a period when a new consciousness seemed to flourish, stereotypes and prejudices were confronted & challenged and for a brief period new paradigms seemed possible.

Often today from weariness our perceptions slip and we think much of history just repeats itself. But this week we saw two new firsts – the first woman to claim nomination as a presidential candidate in the USA, the first black Muslim to be given a highly-publicised state funeral.

Where almost no one will argue that the American presidential race has left the rest of the free world shaking its head in trepidation and disbelief; the contribution and legacy of the late Mohammad Ali is different. Ali’s greatness wasn’t confined to his pugilistic skills as an iconic boxer but in using his celebrity to advance racial equality, human dignity and social causes.

His ability to overcome obstacles, his brashness, his declaration of being the ‘greatest in the world,’ inspired a generation of black children not only in America but in Africa and around the world, carrying forward with greater effect the vision of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Ali’s protest of American involvement in the Vietnam War cost him 3 years of absence from boxing. His firmly-held principles and even his unpopular decisions (like joining the black supremacist Nation of Islam), made him an advocate, role model and even hero. No doubt much of it early on was driven by egoism.

But perhaps Ali’s lasting achievement was standing-up for black rights at a time when racist views were unwilling to change. His self-sacrifice and public persona undoubtedly shaped the post-1970s. Sadly, another iconic figure from those heady and optimistic days is gone.

As an aside, the funeral will be conducted in the Islamic ritual. Jews in particular may be surprised to see the similarities between our two faiths in this life-cycle event.

Separately, in October 2015 a series of nature photos were taken to highlight what is called Sacred Geometry, showing a perfect symmetry built-into our world. For a stunning look at these inspiring images, please click here.